Calorie/Macro Tracking has been a hot topic for discussion in the fitness community for many years, with many polarizing opinions on it. There are camps like the “If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) camp that claim that tracking macros is essentially the only thing you need to do to hit your health and fitness goals, and there are other camps that adopt paleo,keto, carnivore, or vegan diets that don’t place as big of an emphasis on calories/macros, but restrict entire food groups. The crazy thing about nutrition is that objectively there are people in all these camps that are relatively fit and healthy. That fact is pretty liberating if you ask me, because that means that whichever diet you like or believe in, and most importantly can adhere to can potentially work for overall health.
There also needs to be a discussion focused around the actual goal of the person undergoing the dietary intervention. If an athlete is cutting for a weight-restricted sport such as wrestling, it’s important that they are still able to perform at their highest level come competition day. It's not uncommon to see massive weight fluctuations in these athletes in the days leading up to competition, and I think it’s safe to say that these large fluctuations aren’t inherently healthy. However it does shed light on the ability of the body to dump weight (of any kind) in a short amount of time if needed. Would these athletes perform at a higher level if they hadn’t dropped 12 pounds in the last 3 days to make weight, then quickly ate their fill to regain as much weight as possible before their competition? I’d argue yes for a multitude of reasons. But for most athletes, it’s still worth it to them to do what they have to do in order to compete even if it means sacrificing their health in the short term. It’s also worth mentioning that the very best at that weight-restricted sport are most likely following a diet that tracks their calorie/macronutrient requirements to properly fuel their training and competition to ensure peak performance.
On the other end of the spectrum, implementing a dietary strategy for weight loss in a client who doesn’t specifically have performance goals, but rather general health goals doesn’t ALWAYS require tedious tracking and counting of macros/calories to be successful. And in many instances this approach can be deleterious to the overall efficacy of the dietary intervention. For many of these folks, what changes the scale for them is focusing on behavior change. Behavior change is one of the most difficult things to shape in any human because humans will almost always choose what’s convenient, fast, and what makes them feel good. That certainly applies to nutrition for the majority of people these days. As clinicians and trainers, it’s our job to make the “right” decisions for these clients minimally less convenient, minimally more time-intensive, and hopefully make them feel just as good if not better, but in the long term instead of the short term. The old adage “ Nothing tastes as good as thin feels” might ring true for some, but others would argue that those people have never had a Steak Burrito from Los Burritos Tapatios, or had All You Can Eat Sushi before! It’s also critically important to understand that these clients don’t want to give up their favorite foods forever! Nobody does! But to create positive behaviors surrounding their favorite foods, and to create awareness around eating and caloric intake can help these clients lose weight even while eating their favorite foods. Which leads us back to tracking calories and macronutrients.
Our Experience with Calorie/Macro Tracking:
In an effort to be fully transparent, there have been a handful of times in our lives when we needed to lose weight for weight-restricted sports, but we haven’t found ourselves in a dire health situation that required massive weight loss. In those times where weight loss was required, I found the best strategy for me was to use Time Restricted Eating, or Intermittent Fasting to put myself into a calorie deficit, while still fueling properly for training. This meant having just tea or coffee in the morning, and waiting until 12 to eat my first meal. From 12-6 I would eat all my calories, and my training could fit into that window which still allowed for productive training sessions. I still loosely tracked calories and macros, however I was not uploading every single morsel of food into the MyFitnessPal app. I simply would keep most of my meals similar on a day to day basis, and track my weight each morning, as well as the trend of my weight fluctuations throughout the week. I also would subjectively be at about a 5-6 hunger level out of 10 when going to bed each night, and this helped me not overconsume during my eating window. This allowed me to consistently lose just enough weight over time, without hating life and while maintaining a productive training schedule. This approach actually led me to losing about 3 more pounds than necessary for my meet, while still PR’ing my Clean and Jerk twice. (N=1 lol)
What the Research Says:
Upon diving into some research regarding Calorie and Macro tracking, I came upon a few RCT’s and Systematic Reviews that talked about the efficacy of tracking interventions for many types of behavior change including weight loss. The first tracked behavior change related to physical activity, diet, drug and alcohol use, and mental health. They concluded that “There was no strong evidence in support of the effectiveness of mobile apps in improving health behaviors or outcomes because few studies found significant differences between the app and control groups”.  It should be noted that this study dove into many different types of “restriction” not just dietary, however it sheds light on the fact that dietary restriction is similarly difficult to restricting things like alcohol or drugs. They’re similar because of the chemical and hormonal responses to these things, but alcohol and illicit drugs aren’t necessary things needed for living like food is. If we constantly reward ourselves with crappy food, alcohol, or illicit drugs, our body’s response to them can become similar and we can become “addicted” to food. In clients where these behaviors are seen, a behavior change approach may be more appropriate.
Another study compared self monitoring strategies for weight loss using the MyFitnessPal app in which they compared differing levels of monitoring daily habits including calorie intake and their weight. The participants had a goal of losing 5% of bodyweight in 12 weeks, which is definitely a manageable goal. The group that lost the most weight was the group that used the app along with weekly lessons, action plans, and feedback. This study concluded that “Regardless of the order in which diet is tracked, using tailored goals and a commercial mobile app can produce clinically significant weight loss” . These results show you that while maybe more time intensive, tracking calories and macros on an app can and should produce meaningful results also.
So which is best for you? If you’re a trainer/clinician, which is best for the population that you see? The classic answer is “It Depends”. That answer should drive you absolutely nuts. Figuring out what factors are going to hinder or help your client reach their goals is really one of the most important things you can do to answer this question. Ask your client things like: Do you understand how to lose weight? What has stopped you from doing it on your own? Are you motivated to make a change now? What supports do you have in place to make sure you’ll stick with this? Are you a Type A or Type B personality? How much weight do you want to lose? How’s your weekend eating schedule look typically? How much are you willing to sacrifice?
For many people, we recommend focusing first on positive behavioral change regarding food and drink choices, preparation methods, and awareness surrounding your eating patterns. From there we teach how to track total calories. From there we build to tracking each macronutrient, but still focusing on the actual goal of the client. In MOST cases, if the scale isn’t moving or goals aren’t being achieved due to weight, it’s because of a discrepancy of caloric intake and expenditure. We educate on ways to incorporate higher caloric expenditures (specifically Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, Thermic Effect of Food, exercise routines) and then hone in on why their “calories in” aren’t matching up with their body weight changes. This is almost always a matter of not tracking accurately. By this point in the educational process, the client is almost always going to see the scale shift provided they’re compliant with your program. What program you choose means so much less than adherence to ANY program. Advise them on this and provide accountability, but ultimately be a guide to them, not a drill sergeant.
Read more below!
Milne-Ives M, Lam C, De Cock C, Van Velthoven MH, Meinert E. Mobile Apps for Health Behavior Change in Physical Activity, Diet, Drug and Alcohol Use, and Mental Health: Systematic Review. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2020;8(3):e17046. Published 2020 Mar 18. doi:10.2196/17046
Patel ML, Hopkins CM, Brooks TL, Bennett GG. Comparing Self-Monitoring Strategies for Weight Loss in a Smartphone App: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019;7(2):e12209. Published 2019 Feb 28. doi:10.2196/12209